Do consumers care about where their cannabis was grown? If it was sprayed with pesticides? Or how many pounds of carbon were released into the atmosphere to cultivate a single plant?
Many Americans would say yes. Consumers in the United States are increasingly concerned with where their products are coming from, how they’re produced and their environmental impact. According to the World Economic Forum, millennials view climate change among the most critical issues our society faces. New York University’s Center for Sustainable Business found most American consumers look for products such as non-GMO, plant-based or certified by a third party like the Rainforest Alliance. “Carbon footprint” has fully entered the mainstream lexicon.
Although cannabis has been cultivated for thousands of years, modern techniques can consume immense amounts of water and energy, resulting in a massive carbon footprint. Even today, with Americans’ growing support for federal cannabis legalization, many people aren’t aware of the cannabis industry’s potential to be extremely wasteful and environmentally unfriendly.
Also, many aren’t aware of huge strides the industry has made to be more sustainable — and of potential improvements that are just on the horizon.
Pushing Growers into the Shadows
For nearly 80 years, cannabis was strictly prohibited across the nation after becoming federally illegal in 1937. So it’s not surprising that cannabis cultivators preferred to go where they could to grow in peace — out of sight of the government and law enforcement. For many, this meant remote patches of wilderness or early iterations of indoor grows. If discovered, law enforcement often physically uprooted the plants or sprayed with 2,4-D, a popular weed killer akin to Agent Orange.
The cannabis black market exploded in the 1980s and clandestine growers sought ways to boost their yields while remaining hidden from prying eyes. By the mid-1980s, an estimated $300 million to $400 million worth of cannabis was grown annually in the Emerald Triangle of Northern California, according to “American Weed: A History of Cannabis Cultivation in the United States” by author and historian Nick Johnson. Cultivators who decided to move indoors ran hot, energy-intensive lights and environmental controls 24/7 to support the cannabis lifecycle. Outdoor “trespass” growers often employed environmentally destructive methods, including spraying abundant pesticides and fertilizers, diverting streams to irrigate their crops and discarding trash at grow sites.
Although California has legalized cannabis for medical and adult-use, illegal farms continue to thrive in public forests, often run by international drug cartels. Sites are frequently marked by piles of refuse. In addition to the trash, environmentalists are also concerned about contaminants — including pesticides that are banned by the Environmental Protection Agency, such as carbofuran — that seep into the soil and waterways, affecting entire ecosystems for generations.
The relegalization of cannabis was a turning point for the industry. Today, cannabis use is legal in 33 states for medical purposes, and 11 of those states have passed adult-use laws. Legalization not only allowed modern growers to access better tools and resources, but it also pushed for innovation.
As with any burgeoning industry, cannabis businesses came under public scrutiny. And what many realized was that cannabis wasn’t so “green” after all. A 2012 study by energy scientist Evan Mills indicated that legal, indoor cannabis grows in California consumed 3% of the state’s total electricity, equivalent to 1 million homes. Concerned by the industry’s rampant guzzling of resources and listening to a growing consumer demand, many cannabis businesses began employing more environmentally conscious practices to cut down on carbon emissions and waste.
These methods included trading harsh chemicals for biological pesticides. Some embraced hydroponic growing to prevent pests and reduce water usage. Other businesses introduced incentives to recycle or reuse packaging.
One of the greatest introductions in recent years has been full-spectrum LED lights. In contrast to high-pressure sodium lights, which had been the industry norm for generations, LEDs run cooler and consume a fraction of the electricity. A 2016 study by the Minnesota Department of Commerce Division of Energy Resources compared LEDs to other lighting technologies for cultivating edible foods. LEDs were found to be more cost-effective and energy efficient.
But even as growers use the latest sustainable technologies, reduce emissions, eliminate pesticides and cut back on plastic waste, they cannot label their products “organic,” as the term is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and cannabis isn’t federally legal. In response, there are organizations that provide certifications in order to advertise sustainable or ethical practices. For example, the Cannabis Certification Council is a nonprofit organization committed to providing cannabis consumers with transparency and education. It advocates for clean cannabis grown without pesticides, sustainable practices and ethical, fair trade.
A Greener Future?
The cannabis industry is here to stay, and as legalization and normalization continues to progress, there will certainly be new opportunities for sustainable technologies and practices to emerge. Simultaneously, climate change is a reality we all must face. More violent and unpredictable weather has the potential to decimate traditional agriculture as we know it, ultimately changing how we approach resource allocation and growing.
Many businesses are taking the necessary steps to become more sustainable. But legislation also needs to reflect the changing tide. Cannabis is no longer viewed as the “gateway drug” of the D.A.R.E classes from our youth. Nor is it the psychosis-inducing menace of “Reefer Madness.” But it’s also evolved beyond a simple plant traded between neighbors in Northern California. Our nation’s laws must reflect the massive industry it has become, prioritizing our environment and consumer safety. Moreover, many would argue cannabis’s sustainable future is inseparable from decriminalization and addressing widespread incarceration due to non-violent cannabis offences.
As the cannabis industry continues to expand, the responsibility is shared by lawmakers and business leaders to be responsible stewards of resources, environment and future generations.
Andrew Myers is president and CEO of ProGrowTech, which helps commercial horticulture operations increase profitability, yield and energy efficiency with LED lighting systems. For more information, visit www.progrowtech.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.